In my first few years of lifting weights, nearly every part of my body got bigger. Bigger chest, bigger biceps, bigger calves…you get the picture.
But one part of my body never seemed to grow. Not that part, you perverts. I’m talking about my forearms. Several years into my training, they were barely any larger than when I first started out. Of course, this could not stand; in my quest for ultimate swoleitude and god-like aesthetics, I would settle for nothing less than massive…well, substantially larger forearms. And I got them.
I had to do a lot of research and experiment with a lot of weird exercises that I’d never seen anyone else doing at the gym. In the process, I realized that the human forearm does a lot more than I had ever realized.
Okay, so WTF do my forearms do?
I’m glad you asked, imaginary reader dude! Your forearms contain at least twenty different muscles, which get used in petty much every motion you could possibly perform with your arms.
First you’ve got your digit flexors and extensors. These muscles, along with your hand muscles, cause your fingers to clench and unclench. Strengthen them, and you’ll have a stronger grip, which will help immensely with exercises deadlifts and chin-ups. They’re located near the hand, obviously.
Similarly, there are some flexors and extensors that control wrist motions. Also near the hands, of course.
Then we’ve got the brachioradialis, which is used to flex your elbow, along with the biceps. Like the bicep, it gets worked when you perform pulling and curling motions, and as you can probably guess, it’s located up near the elbow on the inside of the forearm.
There are the pronators and supinators, which perform twisting motions. If you’re a word ninja, you might already have guessed that the pronators turn your forearm outward so the palm faces away from you, and the supinators turn your palm inward. These muscles are spread all over the forearm.
And finally, there’s the anconeus, a tiny little muscle near the elbow that works with the triceps to extend your elbow.
Got all that? To build big forearms- and to build up the entire forearm, including the top, bottom, front, back, and sides, we’re going to need to perform a bunch of different motions. We’ll need to grip stuff, pull on stuff (get your head out of the gutter), curl our arms, flex our wrists, and rotate our forearms. The only arm movement pattern that isn’t very important to forearm development is pushing, since it only uses the little anconeus muscle.
With all those different movements the forearm is responsible for, it takes a wide variety of exercises to build big, well-rounded forearms. Now, it doesn’t really make sense to design a whole workout dedicated solely to your forearms- so instead, I’m going to give you a few suggestions on how to work these movements into your existing workouts in order to put more of the focus on your forearms.
This is the culmination of all my efforts– the seven best exercise for building bigger gunz. Er, gun-barrels? Yeah, let’s go with that.
Thick bar reverse drag curls
Reverse curls are a great exercise for both the gripping and curling aspects of forearm strength. The problem with regular reverse curls is, you get a brief rest at the top of the motion, as your forearm is pointed vertically up, allowing the weight to rest on it.
Reverse drag curls solve this problem by raising the elbows a bit as you lift the weight, so that at the top your forearm is still angled about 20-30 degrees down from being pointed straight up. Essentially, what you’re doing is a cross between a reverse curl and an upright row.
Using a thick bar with this exercise makes it more fatiguing for your digit flexors- remember, those are the ones that control grip strength. Thick bars are pretty rare, but you can thicken any barbell or set of dumbbells by using Fat Gripz.
Where to put this into your workouts: Use the thick bar reverse curl in place of regular barbell curls. You can also do reverse drag curl static holds in place of barbell curl static holds.
The Arnold press is a variant of the dumbbell shoulder press in which the arms are rotated during the motion, so that the forearm goes from a supinated position at the bottom, to a pronated position at the top. In addition to the shoulder it works, you guessed it, the supinator and pronator muscles.
This is slightly more difficult than a standard dumbbell shoulder press, so you’ll need to use a slightly lower weight. Here’s a video of Roman demonstrating the Arnold punch, which is simply the iso-lateral version of this exercise.
Where to put this into your workouts: You can substitute the Arnold press in place of the military press, dumbbell shoulder press, machine shoulder press, and anything else where you press upward. You can also do an Arnold push press in place of the push press, or an Arnold punch in place of any other iso-lateral upward pressing motion.
Rotating dumbbell end grabs
Dumbbell end grabs are a weird exercise where you hold dumbbells by their ends instead of the middle. That’s it- you don’t move the weight around, you just hold it until your grip starts to fail. This is the single best exercise I’ve ever found for improving grip strength for the deadlift.
Rotating dumbbell end grabs are my own iteration on this exercise. Instead of simply holding the dumbbell still, you rotate it left to right, which works- you guessed it- the pronator and supinator muscles. You can do these with both hands at a time, or you can do alternating dumbbell grabs by passing one dumbbell from one hand to the other after a pre-determined number of rotations.
Is it weird that I get a thrill out of using dumbbells for something other than their intended purpose? It’s weird isn’t it?
Where to put this into your workouts: These don’t replace any other exercises. Because they can fatigue your grip strength so much that it becomes a limiting factor for other lifts, I like to put dumbbell end grabs at the very end of my workouts.
Pull-up to dead hang
This one’s simple: do a set of pull-ups, then at the end of the set, keep holding the bar and hang from it for as long as you can, until your grip gives out.
Note that this isn’t an active dead hang, where you raise yourself just slightly; active dead hangs bring your shoulders and upper back into play, which we don’t want. Just hang all the way down, so that the focus is firmly on grip strength.
Where to put this into your workouts: Just add a dead hang at the end of every set of pull-ups. You can do this with chin-ups too, but you’ll want to let go and re-grab the bar in the pronated position. Hang to failure, or at least within 2-3 seconds of failure.
Dumbell Zottman curls
This is a neat little exercise that combines the best features of bicep curls and reverse curls. You simply lift the dumbbells as in a regular bicep curl, then at the top of the motion, rotate the dumbbells so your palm is facing down and lower them as in a reverse curl.
Here’s a video of Roman demonstrating the Zottman curl. This exercise is great because it allows you to hit almost every muscle in your forearm; you’re curling, rotating the weight, and the lowering portion of the exercise even works your grip strength a bit. As with the drag curl, you can further emphasize the gripping component by using Fat Gripz.
Where to put this into your workouts: Replace dumbbell curls (regular, reverse or hammer curls) with Zottman curls. Not barbell curls though- those get replaced with reverse drag curls.
Wrist curls are like curls, except your arm stays still and you just curl your wrist. Just like the name says. They work both your digit flexors (grip strength) and wrist flexors (wrist movement), for a well-rounded exercise that hits just about every muscle on the lower half of your forearm.
Where to put this into your workouts: You can put these in anywhere you’re doing barbell or dumbbell curls. You don’t want to replace curls with wrist curls, since wrist curls don’t particularly work your arms; instead you want to combine the two.
How you do that depends on the weight you’re curling, because you won’t be able to curl as much weight with your wrists as you can with your arms. If you’re doing light weight (12+ reps) curls, you can do a wrist curl at the bottom of each arm curl, or do several wrist curls at the end of the set.
On the other hand, if you’re curling a heavier weight, you probably won’t be able to do wrist curls with that same weight. In that case, you can add a set of lighter-weight wrist curls immediately after each set of arm curls.
DIY Forearm Workout Device
I first heard about this from the friend who introduced me to kung-fu. As the story goes, the guy who brought our style to America had huge forearms because, growing up in China, he was always fetching buckets of water from an old-fashioned hand-cranked well. This device replicates that motion, without the danger of drinking unsterilized water from a dirty hole in the ground.
What you do is get a wooden dowel (or a metal one like this guy uses) and drill a hole through the middle. Then take a rope that’s about 5-6 feet long, stick it through the whole, and tie a knot in one end so it can’t slip back through the hole. Tie weights to the other end.
Then, hold the dowel by both ends and rotate it, raising the weights as if they were a bucket of well water. Raise the weight all the way up, then gradually lower it back to the floor- that’s one rep.
Where to put this into your workouts: This one’s a little different. This device will get you some weird looks at the gym, and since it’s yours anyway, I recommend just using it at home, completely separate from your workouts.
Keep this device at home (along with 2-3 small barbell plates or wrist weights) and get into the habit of doing 5-6 sets a day, spread throughout the day. The high frequency makes this a great way to hit some slow-twitch fibers, which can be fully recovered in only a few hours.
Onward to Bigger Gunz
In our quest for bigger biceps and triceps, it’s all to easy to neglect the forearm, to just assume that as the upper arm goes, so goes the forearm. As I’ve learned, that is a huge mistake.
To build up your forearms- particularly the muscles in the lower forearm, towards the wrist- you need to work some motions that aren’t seen in most arm workouts. Now, you don’t need to use all seven of the exercises listed here, but you do need to work every movement pattern that the forearm is involved in.
For optimal forearm development, you need to be doing each of the following at least once a week:
- Arm curling motions
- Wrist curling motions
- Forearm rotation
- Pulling motions
- Static gripping exercises
Most dudes want big biceps and triceps- myself included. But a well-rounded pair of arms is a stronger, sexier pair of arms, and your arms are only truly well-rounded if you’re working the forearm along with the upper arm.
For a more well-rounded arm (and somewhat also shoulder and upper back) workout, take this arm workout, which already incorporates a couple of these exercises, and add two or three more of them into it.